Right now, Republicans have a huge advantage when it comes to governorships, controlling twice as many as Democrats. That probably won’t be true at the end of the year, with the GOP defending 26 seats, compared to the Democrats’ nine. But Democrats look unlikely to gain ground in some of their strongest states, with popular Republican incumbents almost certain to win reelection.
In Maryland and Massachusetts, Govs. Larry Hogan and Charlie Baker, respectively, have enjoyed approval ratings in the low 70s for most of their terms. In Vermont, Democrats are privately all but conceding that they won’t be able to prevent Gov. Phil Scott from winning a second term. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu looks a bit more vulnerable, but his approval ratings are in the 60s and his strongest potential Democratic rival, Colin Van Ostern, ruled out a rematch of their 2016 race in February, a day after a poll showed Sununu with a double-digit lead. And finally, Democrats could easily lose Connecticut in an open race that might become a sort of unpopularity contest between President Trump and outgoing Democrat Dannel Malloy, the governor with the weakest approval rating in the nation.
Part of the Republican advantage in these otherwise blue states comes down to fundamentals. Even as New England has become bedrock Democratic territory in federal elections, voters have regularly elected GOP governors, if only as a check on big Democratic legislative majorities. “Combining that with the strong personal appeal of Charlie Baker and Phil Scott, it’s no wonder that not only are they strongly positioned for reelection, but also that they have crowded out potentially strong challengers from entering their respective races,” says Kyle Kondik, who tracks gubernatorial contests at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
These governors have found ways to break with their national party that appeal to home-state constituents. Scott, for example, signed new gun restrictions into law in April. That drew some protests and likely resulted in a more difficult primary season for him, if not a serious threat, but his change in position on gun control won’t hurt him in the predominantly Democratic state.
Perhaps most important this year, these governors have been able to distance themselves, to a greater or lesser degree, from President Trump. He is anathema among Democrats, but even in a hyperpartisan time, being governor is a big enough job that these Republicans have been able to cut their own distinct profiles. “Democrats spent the beginning of the year trying to tie Trump to Hogan,” says Mileah Kromer, who directs the politics center at Goucher College in Baltimore. “Our polling shows that is just not happening. There’s been a shift, with Democrats now focusing specifically on Hogan and differentiating their positions from his.”
It would be foolish to count Democrats entirely out in states where they have a 3-to-1 advantage among registered voters, as is the case in Massachusetts. But any blue wave would have to be pretty big to threaten these popular incumbents.